Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 October 2006
Issue No. 817
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Labyrinths of the sect

Amid claims of "a Shia infiltration", Rasha Saad explores the sect's presence in Egypt

photo: Nyier Abdou Click to view caption
Al-Imam Ali and Al-Hussein as depicted by the Shia, in the streets of Al-Najaf in Iraq photo: Nyier Abdou ; The shrine of Al-Hussein in Cairo

In the late 1980s, while she worked in a Gulf country well-known for Sunni-Shia unease, Naglaa Abdel-Aziz was proud of her good relations with friends from both Muslim sects: for the Sunnis, she was a Sunni just like them; for the Shias, she was a sincere devotee of Aal Al-Bait, as the Prophet Mohamed's descendants -- and the Shia's guiding lights -- are known: "I prayed in Shia mosques as often as I did in Sunni ones, something no Gulf Sunni would ever consider." A few years before settling in the Gulf, Abdel-Aziz had been stunned when, hosted by an American family on a student exchange programme, she was asked whether she was Shia or Sunni: "I didn't have a clue, so I called my father the next day to ask him what we were. And he said we were just Muslims. I asked him what the difference was between the two sects. He said they were both Muslims."

Such tolerance is in fact typical of Egyptian Muslims, who tend to bypass the sectarian question in favour of a more open version of the creed, with the result that Egyptian Islam has often been defined as Sunni with strong Shia leanings -- a model hardly found in any other Arab country. Egyptian love for Aal Al-Bait is remarkable, manifest in the year-long flow of worshippers to the shrines of Al-Hussein, Al-Sayeda Zainab, Al-Sayeda Nafissa and Al-Sayeda Aisha -- a scene not at all unlike that of Iraqis visiting the Marqad (shrine) of Imam Ali in Najaf or Iranians at Sayeda Ma'souma in Qom or Imam Ali Al-Reza's in Mashhad. Likewise the moulid (saint's anniversary) celebrations: they draw in millions all across the country, all year round. As a result of the Fatimid influence (AD 969- 1171),Egyptians celebrate the holy month of Ramadan with lanterns, bake kahk (cookies) for the Eid. The defining given names of Sunni and Shia Islam are, respectively, Ali and Omar; the latter, at least, is largely avoided by Shia communities, as it refers to the Caliph Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, one of those who reigned prior to Imam Ali and subsequently became associated with Sunni Islam. Yet in Egypt it is very common to encounter both names in the same house. In Fatimid times, it is believed, the vast majority of the population refrained from involvement in their rulers Ismaili (Shia) creed, committing themselves instead to love of Aal Al-Bait, whom they saw as agents of intercession. According to Hoda Zakariya, Cairo University professor of sociology, Egyptians have always adapted religion to their own character, which is mild and balanced.

But Egyptian freedom from sectarianism has more recently been challenged, partly as a result of regional politics: the Sunni-Shia conflict in Iraq, Hizbullah's controversial victory over Israel, Iran's defiant pursuit of nuclear power. Whether in the media or among members of the Muslim community, the Shia are increasingly the object of attention and, in some mosques, of outright attack. Some preachers were assaulted after praying for Hizbullah, whose victory was seen as "a triumph for all Muslims" -- in the words of one follower of the debate, engineer Mohamed Kamal -- while others criticised Hizbullah on sectarian grounds. Last month nearly all Egyptian publications ran special pages on the Shia, with some -- notably Rose Al-Youssef magazine, whose editor-in-chief Abdullah Kamal set the tone -- warning of a so-called Shia threat, referring to "a real danger that Egypt and other Sunni countries might be converted to Shiism". Subtitles included: "Shias are more of a threat to the Islamic nation than Jews"; "Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad manipulate Muslim sentiments to control the Arab world". On the occasion politician Ayman Nour, editor-in-chief of Al-Ghad newspaper, published a review of "the worst 10 characters of Islam", including the Prophet's wife Aisha and several of his acknowledged companions -- figures sanctified by Sunnis but not Shias -- while, in the notoriously oppositional weekly Al-Dustour, Ibrahim Issa expressed support for Hizbullah, setting off several discontented responses on so-called salafi (fundamentalist Sunni) web sites. In the end much of the concern about the Shia's rising popularity is politically driven, Hassan Nasrallah having suggested a model of an Arab leader who can challenge Israel -- something thrown into further relief by the failure of Sunni states to support him, with the Saudi authorities calling his actions "an uncalculated risk". The security side of the debate -- with Iraq at the back of the mind -- centres on the possibility that Shiism, spreading in Egypt, might result in divisions leading to civil strife.

Shias in Egypt are divided into two groups. The first comprises a cluster of families who immigrated to Egypt more than a century ago from Syria, Lebanon and Iran, like Kazeroule, famous for trading rugs, Meshke Beik, and the ancestors of late President Gamal Abdel-Nasser's wife Taheya Kazem. In Egypt they found customs and traditions with which they were familiar, and they integrated through marriage. The second, known as the Neo-Shias, more recently converted from Sunni Islam -- "not a very healthy phenomenon" according to Abdullah El-Ghomi, head of the reputable Centre for the Rapprochement of Islamic Sects (CRIS), whose mandate is for people to know each other without converting from one sect to another; and it is in this group that the "threat" is perceived. Established by Imam Mohamed Taqey El-Ghomi in Cairo in 1948, the CRIS was the first and most successful attempt to reconcile Islam's two sects. The founding members included the Sheikh Mahmoud Shaltout, later the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Hassan El-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Amin El-Husseini, Mufti of Jerusalem. Sadly, attacked by sheikhs on both sides, the CRIS halted its activities during the Iran-Iraq war in a bid to circumvent attempts to co-opt it. According to El-Ghomi, in a spirit of tolerance and solidarity, conversion should be unnecessary: "As Muslims we gain nothing when someone converts from one sect to another. In fact there is more damage than gain, because it scars the people of the sect that person converted from, and contributes to enmity." Converting to Shiism would change little if anything at all in a Sunni's day-to- day life, El-Ghomi explains: "What difference would it make in one's daily life to believe that Imam Ali should have been in the first Muslim caliph? Or to conjoin two prayers into one? Even mut'a marriage, [the Shia law permitting marriage for a predefined period of time], because it is not socially acceptable, becomes prohibited."

Sunnis convert, rather, to narrowly political ends: unlike its Sunni counterpart, for example, Shia inheritance law grants a brotherless woman as much as half the inheritance of her father. But with Sunni Sharia installed in the legal system, El-Ghomi argues, that would achieve nothing. Yet for Nabil Abdel-Fattah, who edits the State of Religion in Egypt annual report for the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, Shia jurisprudence is dynamic, flexible and pragmatic -- which makes it attractive to many a Sunni frustrated with lack of change: "For many years Sunnis refrained from ijtihad [independent thought] and tended to adopt a hard-line approach similar to the Saudi Wahabi model." For Sunnis this tendency, Abdel-Fattah elaborates, has led to a gap separating daily life from religious provisions, driving Sunnis to embrace Shiism. Other factors include the erosion of spirituality from Sunni life, with no provision for anything comparable to the Passion of Christ, to which Egyptians arguably relate. Less obviously, the fact that millions of Egyptians have worked in the Gulf countries since the 1970s makes the population more open to different schools of thought. Exact numbers are not forthcoming. Even as analysts estimate that there are less than 5,000 Shias in Egypt, Shia leaders insist that, while their numbers are in the millions, many Egyptian Shias are using the principle of taqeya to conceal their identity for fear of oppression. "Sufism made for a good cover," Saleh El-Wardani, spokesman for the community, explained, describing the moulid context as the opportunity for Shias to gather under cover of Sufism. El-Wardani is in the process of establishing a Shia political party, Aman (Safety) which, though supported by other Shias like Assem Fahim, professor of science at Cairo University, stands in opposition to a group, led by Mohamed El-Dereini, president of the Higher Council for Affairs of Aal Al-Bait, which claims to be the true representation of the Shia in Egypt, and hopes to found its own party, Al-Ghadir. An outspoken critic of the political and religious leadership, El-Dereini was arrested in March 2004 and held without trial until his release under pressure from a human rights group that approached the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in June 2006. He was reportedly described as "an utmost threat to state security" due to his calling for the recognition of the Shia as a religious minority.

"It is normal for competition and rivalry to exist over political and religious leadership," Abdel-Fattah remarks. "In the case of El-Dereini, his extremism has guaranteed intensive media coverage support from Western and NGO circles, notably in the US, where the freedom of religion is upheld." Indeed in 2004 the US Committee for Freedom of Religions called for lifting measures against the Shias in Egypt, though it is not clear if this was related to the arrest of El-Dereini, whose most shocking demand was that Al-Azhar should be handed back to the Shia. Originally established by the Fatimids as a bastion of Shia jurisprudence, converted under Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi in 1171, Al-Azhar has been for centuries among the Sunni world's best established theological authorities. But as the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, in the early 1960s, Shaltout went down in Islamic history for delivering a fatwa to the effect that Sunnis and Shias were equal in the eye of Islam; both, he insisted, are fully in keeping with both creed and law; soon afterwards Al-Azhar introduced Jaafari jurisprudence into its curriculum, to be taught on an equal footing with the four Sunni schools. Mahmoud Ashour, former secretary of Al-Azhar, puts it simply: so long as they believe in Allah and that Mohamed is His messenger, the Shias are Muslims. On his return from a visit to Iran, undertaken with an Al-Azhar delegation to mark 40 years since the death of Shaltout, Ashour said Shiism in Egypt could not function as a cult or a party because all Egyptian Muslims are devotees of Aal Al-Bait. Responding to the call for "restoring" Al-Azhar to the Shia, Ashour described El-Dereini as "disturbed and overambitious". All of which does not prevent many Egyptians from maintaining a psychological barrier against the Shia other. Amal Mohamed, for example, applied herself to the fatwa council of the Gulf country where she lived when a Shia man proposed to her. The sheikh told her it would not be irreligious to marry him, but that if she were his own daughter, in the end, he would strongly advise her against it.

Among Sunnis the Shia are beset with misconceptions, one of which is that they have a different Qur'an; this resulted from the fact that the Shia discovered and kept for a while copies a mosshaf (book) belonging to each of Ali and Fatmah -- a personal Qur'an; the confusion resulted from the fact that, in Egyptian Arabic, the word mosshaf is the most common term for the Qur'an. Another misconception centres around the alleged claim that the Angel Gabriel mistakenly relayed God's message to Mohamed, whereas in fact he was meant to submit it to Ali instead; in reality no true Shia would ever make the claim that the angel stayed mistaken for 23 years or that he was unable to tell a 40-year-old man apart from a seven-year-old boy. Another misconception still is that the Shia call to prayers, while including a testimony to Ali being the ally of God, actually omits the testimony to Mohamed being His messenger. Analysts say that the psychological barrier was deliberately cultivated by the authorities -- particularly in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which threatened to spread throughout the region. In the Iran-Iraq war, too, Egypt sided with the Arab, Sunni Iraqis; and misconceptions were further developed and spread. It was a period when conspiracy theories about Iran emerged in abundance. According to El-Ghomi, this was a grave mistake: "Political differences fade away, but when authorities play the sectarian card, then they are planting the roots of something deeper and almost impossible to eradicate." Recent history has in fact revealed the Shia-Sunni dispute to be political rather than confessional. Most of the literature in this category dates from after 1601, when Iran was unified by the Shia Safavids, in the face of their Sunni Ottoman rivals. The same thing is said to have happened after the Islamic Revolution, at which point the average Egyptian was so clueless they could hardly differentiate shi'i from shiyou'i (communist) -- something the government reportedly exploited. The political atmosphere of the time is best summarised in a poem by the vernacular, oppositional poet Ahmed Fouad Negm: "They are Shia/ We are Sunni/ How to reconcile them with Egypt?/ Scared of another revolution/ They drive us/ Through a labyrinth/Saying it's a shiyou'i / Posing as a shi'i... If it's that confusing/ To hell with both sects... Now you are kings/ Though you're apostates/ And being despicable/ You made two Islams/ So that the Imam can be called an apostate."

But aside from the media frenzy, few if any analysts believe that Egypt is a target for an Iran- loyalist Shia takeover, as it were. According to Abdel-Fattah, "Until this moment, this limited group can never pose a threat to the Sunni sect in Egypt." The reason, in part, is that for three decades Egyptian Islam has leaned towards Saudi Wahabism. The security apparatus is particularly alert to any organised formation of Shias, what is more, and any such movement will no doubt be promptly suppressed, particularly since Egyptian interests at present are in conflict with those of Iran. Crackdowns already took place, indeed, in 1987 through 1989; the biggest occurred in 1996, when 56 people were arrested in Cairo and the Delta; and lately, in 2004, the Red Sea town of Ras Gharib witnessed another crackdown. The charge is always the same: "Joining an underground organisation aimed at undertaking a coup d'état and using religion to generate sectarian strife." The behind-the-scenes perpetrator is always Iran -- and confessions to the effect of being financed and trained to spread Shia ideology by Iran are extracted. Former state security director Fouad Allam says the state differentiates between a belief in Shiism and a politically driven Shia organisation. The authorities, he insists, have only sought out those organised lobbies that constituted a security threat, whether or not they describe themselves as Shia. Shias in Egypt, he says, are far from suppressed. Others, like Islamist political analyst Fahmi Howeidy, believe the answer to the problem is to normalise relations with Iran. He believes the media and security are exaggerating the influence of the Shia in Egypt -- a religiously stable country that has always had strong relations with Aal Al-Bait and was never in two minds about which sect to belong to. "A big country with a population of 73 million will not slide into strife when a few thousand change sects. The Egypt that fears Iran and the Shia can only be a vulnerable country. It's a real shame that Egypt should have relations with Israel but not with Iran."

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a well-informed authority on Iranian affairs said Egypt should take the rapprochement with Iran more seriously. "In Iran they have reached the conclusion that lobbying for Shiism in any Sunni country will backfire. Iranians now limit their operations to Africa and elsewhere." He agrees that there is money involved in lobbying for Shiism in Egypt, but this money is not necessarily Iranian. Shia leaders are individually recruited by Shia religious men with money involved to "help people see the right path"; those are mostly Shia fanatics, the way there are Sunna fanatics, whose aim is not political as such but rather to "spread righteousness" -- unaware they are causing more harm than good. The source also denounced the effect of money on religious activities, something that began in the 1970s. "Before that, everyone spoke their mind freely; no one would change his mind to appease some power or other or to appear in a satellite channel or to sign an employment contract in a Gulf country. Today a religious man, in giving a fatwa, will be looking in every direction to see where he can get the price." According to Abdel-Fattah, however, a rapprochement between Iran and Egypt is unlikely to happen any time soon now that there is a competition over regional supremacy between the two countries and what has been described as an attempt by Iran to sideline Egypt's regional role, not to mention contradictions in the position of each country: "Egyptian policy is one of peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, while Iran adopts a radical approach on the same issue. Iran is using the conflict to establish its regional leadership at the expense of Egypt, which is facing a political setback on the regional front." Preparing to resume CRIS activities, for his part, Al-Ghomi is hoping the centre will contribute to easing tensions. He is proud of its past achievements on the academic level: the way it managed to attract high-ranking religious figures to hold effective conferences. El-Ghomi is aware that it might trigger conflict, but this time, he says, the CRIS will focus on the grassroots. "Having succeeded on the intellectual front," he says, "our target this time round will be the man on the street."

33% Off -- Al-Ahram Weekly Annual Subscription: $50 Arab Countries, $100 Other. Subscribe Now!
--- Subscribe to Al-Ahram Weekly ---

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 817 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Region | Economy | International | Opinion | Special | Culture | Sports | Cartoons | People | Listings | BOOKS | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map